My friend Rex says, "You'll love the Slabs in August. Some would call you adventurous and brave, and some completely out of your mind." The Slabs are Slab City, three miles east of Niland, between the sultry Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains. Years ago the concrete slabs supported the barracks of Camp Dunlap, where General George Patton and his tanks rehearsed desert-warfare tactics fro the North African Campaign of 1942. Now the slabs are used b squatters who park their RVs and trailers on the crumbling concrete, about 200 people year-round and as many as 5000 in the winter months. There is no electricity or running water. My plane had flown over the Salton Sea coming into San Diego. Rarely has a body of water looked less inviting. It resembled the Dead Sea.
Thinking of Rex's words, I check the weather forecast for Niland. During the next five days the lows would be 84, the highs 108. But this turns out to be wrong. On Friday, August 26, the temperature reaches 118, and on Saturday it's 121.My plan is to visit Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain -- once a toxic nightmare and now a folk-art extravaganza made up of more than 100,000 gallons of paint -- which has kept Mr. Knight busy for the last 21 years. Passing through El Centro, I buy a gallon of red paint as a little gift.
Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley, to the north, form a great pancake about 100 miles long from north to south. Most is below sea level and ringed by hazy mountains, whose peaks create a jagged line, like a sheet of torn paper. Before the opening of the Imperial Canal in 1901, bringing water from the Colorado River, the valley was nearly uninhabitable. After the Hoover Dam was finished in 1935, great farms began growing alfalfa and cotton, but mostly hay.
The smell of hay fills my car as I drive up Route 111. The few palm trees are all dusty. Walls of baled hay spot the fields. Some fields are being planted, some harvested, some growing, some are stripped bare. The towns -- Brawley, Calipatria, Niland -- seem poor, with mobile homes, small one-story houses squatting close to the ground, and fenced yards with rusting and unidentifiable machinery. The sign welcoming me to Niland gives the population as 1052 souls. What might generously be called "the business center" is two strips of squat concrete shops, a third of them empty, with the closed library, a laundromat, Ballestero's restaurant, and a burned-out gas station on the west side, and Bobby D's pizza, the post office, and a modest supermarket on the east. Turning right on Main Street, I pass five blocks of small houses and a decrepit trailer park at the edge of town. Five years ago the median household income was $25,592, about half the national average. I cross two sets of railway tracks, then pass a power station and the road to the dump. Out in the brush a dozen shacks lean precariously. A storage facility advertises outdoor storage for $10 a month. Inside its chain-link fence about 100 trailers and RVs await the return of the snowbirds. A narrow canal divides the final hay field from the beginning of the former Camp Dunlap. I pass an empty and bullet-scarred concrete sentry booth. Part of the last Star Wars movie was filmed near here, and the landscape is spare and extraterrestrial.
But then in the distance I see Salvation Mountain. It would be hard to miss given its riot of color. At more than 30 feet high, and topped by a 15-foot cross, it forms the northern end of a bluff about a quarter-mile long. On the flat land in front of the bluff are two trucks -- both over 50 years old and decorated with painted birds, flowers, trees, landscapes, and religious phrases -- a decorated tractor, a decorated Jeep Wagoneer, and a decorated moped. To the south are an elderly Ford bus, another tractor, a station wagon, and two trailers, one an old Airstream. I also see about ten bicycles and a rusted machine for supplying hot air to a hot-air balloon: a boiler, firebox, fan, and chimney. The only functional vehicle turns out to be one of the bikes. The ground upon which these objects, and many others, sit is the color of an elderly yellow Labrador retriever. There are no trees.
As I approach, I make out the largest words on the mountain: "God Is Love," in raised red-and-pink lettering. Beneath this quote, in white lettering inside a red heart ten feet across, is the Sinner's Prayer: "Jesus, I'm a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart." But this is only some of the writing, which includes the Lord's Prayer, quotations from scriptures, and references to scriptural passages important to Mr. Knight. Around the words are painted waterfalls, the American flag, clouds, flowers, and trees, in blues, whites, reds, pinks, greens, a confusion of color that spills down into a painted sea with whitecaps and more flowers and what appears to be an old bass boat, without seats and painted dark red. The vehicles and Airstream are painted similarly. Every available surface is a splash of color and language. To the right of the mountain is a partly finished, dome-shaped structure made of hay bales and adobe, with thick stripes of pink, blue, orange, white, yellow, red, violet, and more, into which a dozen car windows and thick branches have been inserted. Scattered nearby are dozens of old car and truck tires -- about 50 are arranged to spell out L-O-V-E -- telephone poles, piles of car doors and windows, a railway crossing sign lying on its side, a broken satellite antenna, tiles, dishes, barrels, and a whole lot of empty paint cans.
I park beside a 10-foot-high painted sign made of paint, adobe, and hay bales. It announces "Salvation Mountain" and "God Never Fails" and is decorated with painted flowers. Across the road in the brush are about 40 trailers belonging to Slab City, which has more enclaves stretching out over two miles. The only other car in evidence is black, expensive, and Japanese. Climbing from air-conditioning into Slab City's weather, I feel like hamburger slapped into the clamshell of a George Foreman grill. I grab my gallon of paint and proceed across a washed-out gully toward a truck that has a small shed with a gabled roof on its back. Beside it, three men are just getting to their feet. One is Leonard Knight, the other two belong to the expensive Japanese car and are dressed for the part.